Vivek's blog: Five critical blogging mistakes

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Five critical blogging mistakes


This post might outrage you.

It's been written by someone who has violated every basic rule of blogging. I've started a blog, made promises, and then just left the blog in the graveyard.

No matter. I've learned a lot in the meantime. I'm yet to be a champion blogger, but I am one badass evaluator of blogs. (It's part of my day job.) So, if nothing else, you'll be hearing from someone with a ton of experience in separating the great blogs from the chaff.

With that in mind, here's my take on the top mistakes bloggers are making today. Avoid these and your blog will be on its way to success.

1. Being ludicrously self-conscious
The 'likable movie date' syndrome

I have a friend who is a smart cookie with great writing and editorial skills. She can whip an idea into a neat piece of prose in no time. But she's enormously frustrating - and it's because of fear.

You see, she is always worried about what other people think of her. She can't tell a joke without looking around for fear of offending someone. (And no, I'm not talking about racist/homophobic/coprophilic humor - I'm talking about someone who wants to be 100% sure that everyone in the room will be the type of person who will find her joke funny.) She will never tell anyone how she's truly feeling. She will never produce an authentic, spontaneous reaction to a moment.

Why? She doesn't want to annoy anyone. She wants to be liked by everyone. She wants to be inoffensively pleasant and charming. She detests awkwardness.

In fact, she's the perfect friend to go to a movie with. She will sit quietly next to you and then debrief the movie in measured tones afterwards. She'll never guffaw loudly, try to predict the next line, spill popcorn on you or even cough during a tense moment.

This makes for terrible blogging.

Excellent blogging requires risk. You have to put yourself out there in raw form. You have to be prepared to be ridiculed, stared at and critiqued. No great work engenders universal agreement. And no great blog is universally liked.

In order to be loved, you have to risk being hated. Embrace the fear. Otherwise, get the hell out of my way. You're boring me.

2. Being ludicrously self-obsessed
'The world exists to reflect my view of it.'

There are some people who can get away with extreme narcissism. Every single post is about their mood, their activities, their take on how the world should be.

When this succeeds, it's usually because it's blisteringly funny. We get taken along on a wild, caustic journey where a particularly sharp mind unleashes lightning bolts of scorn and approval on itself and its reality. It can be great. (And, funnily enough, it's usually not the celebrities who are good at this!)

Two warnings, though. First: this is dreadfully difficult. It requires a degree of natural talent that most people don't have. If you're not the type of person who can talk about herself at a dinner party for hours on end AND have guests hanging on every word, you're not cut out for this. And believe me: chances are, you're not. Ask your friend (the good ones).

Second: the saddest people in the world - and especially on the internet - are the ones who think and talk only of themselves. It might be interesting for a while, but it's usually horrifying. When reading these types of blog, I'm usually overcome with fear for the writer's mental health and wellbeing. Compelling narcissists flame out quickly. I recommend being a happy blogger.

3. Worrying too much about the medium
'It's pixels, not ink. It's a different world!'

You know the drill. 'Users' aren't 'readers.' People 'scan' text in a browser; they don't 'read' it.

There's a ton of awesome usability research out there. I'm not dissing the data: it's true that people read blogs differently from how they read magazine articles or novels.

But great bloggers know how to make the medium work for them rather than tailoring their style around the medium. Like any other form of human communication, you need to remember that there are people looking at your words and pictures. And you have a suite of tools to help them.

No one appears to state the obvious: blogging gives you amazing abilities with text that most book publishers would die for. If I wanted to draw your attention to this phrase right here, I barely have to take two seconds out of my narrative. A print publisher would be searching for the correct ink over weeks. (Believe me. I know.) Right away, you're equipped with tools that help you transcend the fact that you're communicating on a screen rather than on friendly paper.

More importantly, though, think about the path you want your users to take. If you want a 'dip in' mentality, then it's fine to pepper the top of your posts with compelling images and put your headlines up front. This is a great style for marketing yourself: lead with your best story and get yourself out there.

But it is possible to cultivate readership on the internet. You want to seize interest from the beginning, of course. That's a given with any style of authoring. However, you can create a solid editorial flow, move the reader logically and felicitously from one point to the next, and make reading on the web much more pleasurable with your style.

Want proof? You've probably read more than 900 words to get down to this part of the post. So much for 200-word posts, eh?

Create a compelling narrative, present it in a way that people will love, and shout it from the rooftops. If you have something great to say, people will listen.

4. Closing down the conversation
'I wrote the book on it. Here it is.'

Have you ever been in a situation where you were debating something - really going hammer 'n' tongs at it with someone else, having a great time...and then it just stopped?

It might have been because you were interrupted. But chances were, one of you shut down the debate. Perhaps the person you were talking to was tired, hungry, headachey or something. And they just stopped the conversation in its tracks by saying something like 'Fine, we'll just have to agree to disagree,' or 'Well I don't see it that way, and I don't think I will,' or (worst of all) 'Cool - whatever - nevermind.'

How frustrating is that? You were passionately discussing something you believed in...and then it just stopped.

A lot of bloggers treat their readers exactly like that. They start an interesting discussion, then cut it off. They don't respond to comments. Or they never address an unanswered question in a followup post.

When you're blogging, you're communicating with people. Cut them off and they'll cut you off. If you want to publish, buy a printer and distribute leaflets. Good luck with that.

(By the way, this is not a license to engage in one of my pet peeves: posting an inane, nearly irrelevant question at the bottom of blog entries to 'stimulate conversation.' This ranges from the catch-all 'That's what I think; what do you think?' to the awkward 'Here's my theory on the deeper meaning of Moby-Dick.... Err, everyone likes whales. Do you like whales? Have you ever seen a whale?'

Screw that. If you're going to end with a question, it should have arisen naturally from your thoughts. When you're talking with someone, you don't end everything you say with a question. Do you?)

5. Obsessing over topic
The political and the personal DO mix!

You can write anything you like.

You don't have to stay on topic.

Most folks don't think of this one as a biggie, but it can kill creativity dead in seconds. Folks get hung up on the 'point' of their blog: 'My blog is about the nature of magic and the necessity of magical speech in Harry Potter, so I can't write about this really cool thing I just thought of.'

That's bull. If you have an original, creative, entertaining thought, then by God I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT. We are surrounded by entertainment options, but we are transfixed by anything that adds a spark of joy to our existence.

Please, PLEASE don't limit yourself. Got a great photo? Put it up. Wrote a poem? A good poem - not some claptrap about how the changing of the seasons puts you in the mind of your own mortality but reassures you because it signifies how you're part of a greater cycle that has deep underlying meaning which touches every part of the universe and unites all its individual atoms on a metaphysical level? Let's see it.

Don't be afraid.

(Hey, thanks for making it this far! I'll follow up this post soon with a corollary: three blogging 'mistakes' that aren't mistakes at all. Soon. I promise.)

UPDATE: Hey, look! Here it is.